Before I get into this article, thought I’d specify for whom this is written. If you’re in the marketing department of a multi-million dollar company that is either 1) producing corporate videos in-house or 2) evaluating the pros and cons of doing so, then the following tips will either help you elevate the quality of your productions, or at least make you think twice about “trying this at home”.
Having produced corporate video for well over a decade, and now nearing completion of my first feature-length documentary, the following tips have been assembled from lessons learned as a result of mishaps, mistakes, gear failures and inexperience. This article was originally entitled “712 Things That Can Go Wrong On Corporate Video Shoots” but I had to summarize a bit to keep it to a reasonable length. Here goes:
- Get the story straight. With any project I create, whether websites, graphic design, and certainly video, my first two questions are ALWAYS the same. What is the message? Who is the audience? Without a keen understanding of the executive stakeholders’ goals, you are flying blind during your interviews. Sure you’ll get some footage—some of it might even be usable—but without putting yourself directly in your audience’s head, and LISTENING to your interviewees from their perspective, you will not get engaging, action-inspiring content that will serve the business goals originally set forth. During pre-production, make sure everyone on the team clearly understands the “why and for whom are we creating this video” questions so that during filming everyone feels confident that “we nailed it” rather than “we probably got some stuff we can stitch together in editing.” Some late night in the future (early morning…?) at 4:00 AM with five hours to go before the CEO is expecting to see the first assembly, you’ll be wishing you had thought your story through a little better while you’re scouring through sound bites trying to piece together a coherent narrative arc.
- Master the facts. Nearly as important as getting the story straight, is mastering the facts regarding the content at hand. If your piece is a general company overview, you need to know (at the very least) your company’s current strategic goals, value proposition, competitive landscape, industry trends and emerging technologies. Always remember, in order to get the best delivery from your talent, you are not just hoping to have an executive regurgitate something the marketing department scripted, but your aim is to engage them in authentic conversation at their level. Yes, you have to record certain pre-approved sound bites (have your checklist close at hand, and make sure your camera ops do as well) but I have found that the best footage comes from executives when they are speaking passionately about the topics they are most familiar with—to a peer. My wife Shannon calls me “The Chameleon” when I’m producing, for the rapid way I can shape-shift with total fluidity from marketing expert to IT expert to finance expert to corporate strategist as we move from one interview to the next. Your interviewee’s entire demeanor depends on their level of trust in you and their perception of your competence, so if you’re coming across like a newbie first-timer who doesn’t even know the basics of their vocabulary, your interview is going nowhere.
- Lighting, lighting, lighting. I repeat the word three times here, as it is critical you understand the orientation of the three-point lighting setup. If you are not familiar with the terms key light, fill light and back light, there are hundreds of great articles and video tutorials to be found that can illustrate this most basic of lighting design. If you thought you could just plop an executive down in a chair in a boardroom and hit record, you are going to be incredibly disappointed with the results. Crafting the right lighting scene to complement the thematic elements at hand is an art in and of itself, but with a basic understanding of the three-point lighting setup, and a few hours of practice with a colleague or assistant, you will really see a difference in the depth, detail and cinematic appearance of your interviewees. You can get a decent continuous lighting kit from B&H for under $1,000 but MAKE SURE you spend the time to test your gear (hey intern, can you sit in that chair for a couple hours…?) well in advance of the shoot. Messing around with lighting fixtures for 30 minutes with an antsy CEO in the interview chair is so very not fun.
- Audio, audio, audio. As a former professional audio engineer who spent ten years on the road mixing huge concerts around the world, it pains me to listen to some of the corporate videos I see being posted every day. It is so blatantly obvious when someone has recorded video using a camera’s onboard microphone (some distance from the subject) rather than a high-end lavaliere or shotgun microphone on a boom in close proximity to the sound source. You’ll notice I also use the word “audio” three times in this section, as whenever we film corporate video we use three cameras and three microphones. We double-mic the interviewee using two lavalieres, and add in a shotgun microphone as a backup. I can’t count the number of times that having redundant microphones have saved a shoot in the event of a cable or battery pack failure, which always happens at the exact second a CXO utters their most memorable sound bite. Lastly, no matter what, ALWAYS record at least 30 seconds of room tone. As you’ll see below, you might be filming in a boardroom on the day when the facilities person can’t get the HVAC fans to turn off. Having a clean recording of the ambient noise will allow you to perform a noise reduction in editing, but without it you are stuck listening to that distracting noise floor.
- Camera, camera, camera. As I mentioned in the previous audio section, we use three-cameras in different configurations depending on the style we’re trying to achieve. Regardless of the project, we’ll use our best camera and microphone for our main shot, the “primary” angle which is wide enough to allow the subject to move a bit without going off screen, setup and focused with a suitable depth of field to allow the subject to lean forward and backward a bit without going in and out of focus. Be very careful when shooting DSLRs with long lenses as your primary shot—although they can give you a gorgeous shallow depth of field and cinematic appeal, a jumpy & nervous interviewee can continually get themselves drifting out of focus and ruin your primary. I usually adhere to the standard “rule of thirds” for the primary shot (you MUST look this up if you don’t know what I’m talking about) because it’s nice and safe, and is the critical “go to” shot. Once you’re confident about your primary shot (usually a medium close up, from sternum to just above the top of the head) your second shot should also be a “high confidence” setup in terms of both field of view and depth of field. Stylistically I often prefer for our corporate projects to have the second camera setup as a close up (to better convey emotion and facial expressions) although in some cases we will use a wide shot (maybe we’re trying to show the cool office architecture or something) which we can edit in as a black and white look or other alternative to keep the pace of the edits fresh. The third camera gives you the most flexibility in terms of “getting artsy” and I like to be somewhat experimental with this angle. For the documentary film we are producing as I write this, I’ve settled on a DSLR with a “nifty fifty” 50mm fixed-focal length lens. Although the lack of zooming capability can be an issue if you’re stuck in a small board room (see below) if you really want to blur out a background and make your subject pop, this is an amazing setup. Whenever possible, get as large of a room as possible so you can “spread out” your rig, get some nice long focal lengths (which you’ll need for depth of field management) and maximize the distance from your cameras to your subject, and your subject to your background. If you try to jam everything into a small space, with no separation between gear-subject-background you are not going to be satisfied with your look.
- Monitor, monitor, monitor. Although convenient, the small LCD viewfinders on video cameras are essentially useless for seeing the super-fine details that can kill a production. Ever gotten into editing to find the CEO of a $100 million dollar company had a giant ear hair shining brightly under the backlight? Or worse yet notice a long nose hair that is only visible in the side shot and just cost you your third camera angle because you couldn’t see it on the tiny screen? Umm, me neither… To prevent these issues, you’re going to need some large, HDMI-capable monitors to ensure you can see your subject in perfectly crisp detail in a large format, as well as ensure you’re not photo bombing yourself. We once filmed an executive in his office, and (thank goodness) noticed some very annoying distractions on the bookshelves behind him in the monitor before we started filming. True, you can sometimes fix these things in editing & Photoshop after the fact, but only if the offending background annoyance is far enough away from the talent’s head that you don’t have to fix frame-by-frame.
- Production design. Although it would be nice to transport half a dozen multi-millionaire executives away from their day jobs to a remote soundstage (this of course actually happens with big budget productions, but that is for another article on projects with significant budgets) the readers of this article are more likely going to be recording somewhere around the office, or possibly even a meeting room in a local hotel (maybe during a conference or company offsite) or other semi-weird space that someone’s executive assistant thought “might work great” and you now have to figure out. The tried-and-true failsafe is to go with a green screen. Even when we’re stuck in a boardroom and can’t move the 8-ton megatable in the middle (because it has 100 cables coming up through the center of it, right?) we have executed amazing shoots because our mobile green screen kit can go pretty much anywhere. You then have unlimited options for selecting backgrounds and production styles during post-production. In situations where a green screen is not the desired look, but you still don’t like the appearance of the room you’ve been given, you’ll want to go with some kind of mottled muslin photography background. This can still give you a clean, professional look, although it must be consistent with the overall style and design of the video you are hoping to achieve. If you do have a cool boardroom with modern architecture and such, concern yourself greatly with the impact of changing ambient light and noise conditions. We’ve had situations where we’ve been at a client site all day, with bright sunlight streaming through the windows in the morning, which turned overcast (or the sun crested the building) and the afternoon shots all have completely different lighting conditions. To counter this, we’ll “switch sides” at lunch time e.g. flip the interview chair to the other side of the room, or just flip from facing left to facing right, then adjust the lighting so that the morning interviewees have a consistent look, as do the afternoon interviewees. This may sound obvious, but try to avoid filming in a meeting space next to the lunchroom or the elevator or a busy walkway. We’ve conducted shoots in zillion-dollar corporate offices complete with marble floors, and I would swear that everyone who walked by was wearing tap shoes. We’ve also done shoots in downtown New York City, Washington, D.C., you name it, and had to pause the interview with a CEO in the chair while the fire trucks pass by with sirens blaring. One time we even had to move the entire setup (lights / cameras / scenic) to another room on another floor on the other side of the building because 30 minutes before the shoot, a road crew began jackhammering down in the street 20 floors below. Still, considering how challenging it can be to coordinate busy executive schedules, sometimes you just have to deal with these things in order to get everyone in the same building on the same day. One other thing, do yourself a favor and have a makeup kit on hand in a variety of skin tones—I would guess that the number of nervous, sweaty execs we have filmed who required a quick dusting of powder to dull their glistening brow numbers in the pretty-much-all-of-them range.
- Hire a decent producer, hire a good producer, or better yet hire a great producer. Before you can determine what level of producer you need, you first need to understand what a producer does. Depending on the scope of the production, the producer may (and typically does) serve multiple roles, from guiding all aspects of pre-production, selecting and hiring the crew, directing the shoot, and guiding the post-production through delivery process. However for purposes of this article I’m defining a producer as, “the person who sits in the chair across from the executives you intend to film” and actually conducts the interview. It is the producer’s job to “draw forth” the best content and performances from people who are not actors, are likely quite nervous, and had little to no opportunity to rehearse. Not only does the producer have to have full mastery of the story, the producer must also keep track of all the relevant facts, be keenly aware of the technical aspects of the shoot, watch the clock, interface with the clients, and be astute and flexible enough to “feel” when an interview is either a) going awry or b) going in a more interesting thematic direction that needs to be explored, either for the current project or a future one. There is so much psychology involved in being a producer—establishing rapport, keeping the talent calm and focused (right up until you no longer want them calm and focused, but passionate and agitated as the case may be…) Producing is an emotional roller coaster, where you typically go from researching to writing to directing to coaching from one minute to the next. It’s difficult to convey how completely exhausted you are after a long day of shooting—mentally, emotionally, and physically. The ability to master not only all of the technical elements of the shoot, but also the thematic and artistic elements as well is a skill that takes years of experience and dozens if not hundreds of shoots to acquire. Setting up all the gear properly, researching topics, interfacing with the client and stakeholders—it can all come crashing down if the producer is not up to the task.
While a single article on producing corporate video could never really be complete (the variables involved in a successful production are endless) I hope it has given you some food for thought. Pointing a video camera at a corporate executive and pressing the record button on a video camera is easy—a fifth grader can do that— but producing gorgeous, compelling, engaging, motivating and inspiring corporate video is both an art and a science requiring simultaneous mastery of content, technology, directing and talent psychology.